The arctic

How to create situational awareness between the icebergs

It can be hard to grasp the enormity of the Arctic. While the size of Greenland is usually exaggerated on common world maps, the Arctic as a whole is always underrepresented.


Let me clarify; we are talking about an area the size of Russia and more than twice the size of Australia. An area where nature is more hostile than anywhere else on earth. With virtually no infrastructure and extreme weather conditions, it seems impossible to get any kind of situational awareness of the vast Arctic.

Yet the growing commercial and political interest in the Arctic calls for increased awareness and understanding of what is going on between the icebergs. In order to secure the interests of the Western allies, the first and most important step is to achieve a complete picture of the situation in the High North.

The key to arctic awareness lies in existing data

Despite the fact that the cooperation between military domains and the Arctic countries is considered a success, the biggest challenge in keeping the region stable and secure is the adequate coverage of the area with military units and observational sensors.

Even with the significant and necessary upgrades of radar systems and naval vessels planned in the Arctic region, it will hardly be sufficient to achieve true situational awareness of the extensive area.

Without the help of intelligent systems and the merging of data, monitoring the area becomes an insurmountable task. And even if the Arctic gets a higher military priority, it will never be economically viable to simply install more radars at outposts, deploy more ships to guard the coastlines, and send more planes in the air to enforce international and national laws. The area is simply too big.

Therefore, if we are ever to ensure that the area is adequately covered, the solution must be found elsewhere; in the technological advances we have witnessed over the past decade. The solution is to utilize both existing and new sensors and data sources in the Arctic region, and combine data from ground-based sensors, naval vessels, manned and unmanned aircraft and satellites. Only then will we be able to get a sufficient situational picture.

Artificial intelligence (ai) ensures successful rescue operations

By combining all available data sources in Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (JISR) systems to pinpoint abnormalities in the landscape and on and below sea level, national Arctic commands will be able to obtain the situational awareness needed to keep the region safe and stable. JISR systems can be optimized through machine learning and other AI techniques which will thus improve the situational awareness in a multitude of applications.

For instance, in case of search and rescue operations: by combining radar and sonar data from surrounding ships along with aerial footage from drones and helicopters, search and rescue teams will be able to get a more complete picture of the situation and how to get it under control. If we combine data with satellite information on ocean currents, rescue teams will furthermore get insights into how the situation may develop – and will know where to look for more lifeboats when the helicopters return.

As the 2019 engine failure on the cruise ship MS Viking Sky demonstrated, there is a need to be prepared for large-scale search and rescue operations in the Arctic. Fortunately, the rescue operation for MS Viking Sky was successful, but as more cruise ships visit the northernmost regions of our planet, we cannot sit back and expect that existing search and rescue systems will always be up to the task when a cruise ship in the High North is in distress.

Each year, the Arctic Command is called out to more than 100 search and rescue operations of varying difficulty; however, it should be underscored that, no matter how simple the circumstances may seem, these are never small tasks. By using artificial intelligence to review and sort all available data, the Arctic nations can ensure that the rescue vessels receive the right information at the right time.

Systems based on artificial intelligence offer benefits for all kinds of rescue operations – even if the sole purpose of the system is to automatically share relevant information between the domains and countries involved in the rescue mission. Artificial intelligence will become the technology that facilitates collaboration and thus will increase the chances of success.

Awareness without risking international cooperation

All Arctic nations have a profound interest in keeping the region peaceful and separate from disputes elsewhere on the planet.

In the Arctic, there is a unique willingness to cooperate and solve the Arctic-specific problems in a constructive and mutually beneficial way. It is extremely important to maintain and continue this unique international collaboration. But as climate change makes the region more accessible, interests in the resource-rich area are growing – interests that could potentially lead to more outspoken disagreements and ultimately to an escalation of conflicts between the countries and thereby ruin the rare situation in the Arctic.

For the Arctic nations, the development calls for a better situational awareness and intelligence that will not lead to a deterioration of international relations. It is a difficult balancing act, as increasing military activity in the area can easily be perceived as military rearmament, even if it is for observational purposes only.

To gain the necessary military intelligence without stirring up conflicts, commands with Arctic responsibility would once again be able to utilize intelligent systems to combine and organize data. By combining satellite images with data from other sensors, an intelligent system can cross-reference data points and thus find outliers and abnormalities worth investigating.

The scope of such a system seems limitless

Whether it is uncovering illegal fishing, detecting oil spills or locating potential hiding places for submarines, the best solution seems to be machine learning and automatic data triangulation – especially because all this important intelligence can be harvested using existing or mildly upgraded equipment.

The human factor

Although artificial intelligence may help solve many of the Arctic challenges, it is no silver bullet.

The complexity of the Arctic region goes far beyond what any computer system is capable of solving. The intricate mixture of high politics, international coalitions, commercial interests, and military activities requires human understanding to navigate. It requires people to interpret the underlying intentions of a given action.

AI systems should therefore only be seen as data crunchers. AI and intelligent data fusion are just tools that give people the information and intelligence that is most relevant at the given time and place. It is a tool to pull as much intelligence as possible out of the resources already available.

Figuratively speaking, one may say that artificial intelligence in the Arctic will be able to point out the right haystack and, in some cases, even find the needle. However, deciding how to deal with the needle will still ultimately be a task beyond the computer’s purview and lay in human hands.